An ongoing tragedy

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST

The tsunami is only the latest woe in the lives of fishermen in Kanyakumari and nearby areas. The vice-like grip that traders, moneylenders and other vested interests have on these people have always kept them downtrodden and powerless.

in Kanyakumari

"WHAT do outsiders know of our lives? It is not just the tsunami. It is not just the relief efforts. They are not our only worries," Thomai Paul kept telling inquiring visitors at Chinnamuttom, the only fishing village with a breakwater and a calm harbour in the southern rough-sea district of Kanyakumari in tsunami-ravaged Tamil Nadu.

His concern was understandable. Thomai was one among the thousands of poor, invisible people in India's coastal villages unexpectedly thrown into the glare of publicity by the `harbour wave' disaster of December 26. In the weeks after that, he and his mates were repeatedly questioned about how the tsunami came to his boatyard and the immediate relief efforts, but the visitors who appeared every other day were seemingly oblivious to their dismal life and countless other concerns.

Thomai is 57 years old - "too old", he said, for the characteristic sharp wind and the choppy sea during most parts of the year in his native village. He fishes with mates who own catamarans during the easy-weather season, and finds odd jobs at the harbour the rest of the year. His family of four has been forced to subsist on the income brought home mostly during the flush months. His wife and daughter are unemployed, his son is still in school.

Nearly a month after the tsunami, the east-coast harbour at Chinnamuttom where nearly 4,000 tonnes of fish and marine products used to land every other day providing employment to over 15,000 people either directly or in ancillary jobs, was deserted, but for a handful of officials and scientists. The majority of the 350 mechanised mini-trawlers at the breakwater-calmed harbour either were damaged or have been lying idle ever since December 26. The catamarans have all been washed away. Boats, each costing Rs.15-25 lakhs, "uninsured and mostly under joint ownership", have been tied close to each other and left to rot until "the government decides on appropriate compensation for the boat-owners". The local fishworkers have no work, no pay, no alternative occupations and perhaps, no `life' as well until then. "You would understand what such damage does to poor people like me, perhaps. But you will never be able to imagine what a disaster our lives have been even otherwise," Thomai told Frontline.

In a sense, ordinary fishworkers like Thomai have become distressing reality-clichs in coastal India, continuing to remain poor, nave, unseen and puzzled at the contradictions thrown at them by mainstream society's incursions into their traditional domains. The growing affluence all around, especially of the moneylenders, merchants, big-boat owners and exporter traders who prosper from their misery, and the high tourism ratings that their villages continue to gain, are to them a cruel joke amidst the gloomy realities of fast-paced industrialisation of the fisheries sector, over-fishing and depletion of the oceans, and their ever-growing indebtedness and marginalisation.

Yet, perhaps, in other parts of the same district, along a 60-km coastline facing the western sea where people in the nearly 40 villages have been clamouring for years even for mini-harbours and breakwaters, Thomai and his friends would, in comparison, be considered a fortunate lot.

THE sea is not kind to the fishermen in the Land's End district of India and for most part of the year the coast is characterised by high winds and volatile surf conditions, which make it impossible for fishermen to launch their craft. Kanyakumari has the largest number of fishermen in Tamil Nadu, for example, but the district has just one mini-harbour, the one at Chinnamuttom, which local fishermen have been guarding zealously as their exclusive preserve.

Fishermen from the western coast of the district are hence forced to live as unwelcome itinerant "gypsies" in search of favourable fishing grounds as far away as Rameswaram in the eastern coast of the State on one side and Vizhinjam, Kollam, Kochi and Mangalore along the Kerala-Karnataka coast. "It is a neglected region where people have been clamouring for harbours and breakwaters but the government has consistently turned a deaf ear to our demands. Fishing is the only vocation we know and we cannot launch our boats from our neighbourhood during most months of the year. So we beg and borrow, and leave, sometimes with our families, to other centres where local fishermen hate to accommodate us," K. Alexander, a fisherman at Melemanakkudi village and former vice-president of the Kanyakumari Fishermen's Federation, said.

According to G. Celestine, president of the Kanyakumari Mavatta Meen Thozhilali Sangham, during the rough-sea season, it is a "strange sight" to see fish traders from nearby districts of Tamil Nadu making a profit even out of the very unfortunate situation. "The fishermen of Kanyakumari are a highly skilled lot but most of them are deep in debt with diminishing returns from the sea perhaps because of a lavish way of life. The traders from fishing centres like Ramanathapuram, Mandapam and Puthukkottai therefore lure them with advances ranging from Rs.10,000 to Rs.50,000 and transport them en masse with families and catamarans to safer fishing grounds. There the traders would have appointed agents who "protect" them from local fishermen and rowdies, and offer them safe transit centres. In return the fishermen will have to surrender the entire catch to the traders on landing at prices decided by the traders," Celestine said.

Such exploitation is not confined to fishermen going to alien fishing centres alone. All along the coastal district Frontline heard stranger-than-fiction tales of extortion and exploitation of the mass of fishermen by moneylenders, traders and merchants. In some villages, fishermen have no other go but to raise funds for building catamarans and buying nets and outboard engines from moneylenders on the promise that the catch would be surrendered to the traders at prices fixed by them. There is no system of auction in some villages. In others like Chinnamuttom, the traders and merchants corner the entire catch from boats on landing, but settle the account only after the fish is sold - the traders or the moneylenders are thus assured of a profit while the fishermen always stand to lose.

EVEN in the best of seasons which lasts barely a few months in a year, in their own native villages, an ordinary fishworker in a mechanised boat cannot hope to get more than Rs.1,000 a day when the catch is good. With the income from a few months' work, he is forced to provide for his family for the rest of the year. A mechanised boat ordinarily would have about eight to ten workers but 60 to 65 per cent of the sales proceeds (after deducting expenses including that for fuel) would go to the owner. The rest is shared equally among the workers. According to Alexander, in addition, each worker would be entitled to a batta of Rs.50 every day and most often, with the dwindling marine resources, that is all the money a worker would get from a trip during the off-season.

A trip in a catamaran, where the sharing system is more democratic, would fetch each of the three or four rowers Rs.100 to Rs.150, according N. Anthony, a panchayat member from the fishing village (thurai) of Rajakkmangalam. The rough seas make those above the age of 40 unfit to venture out to sea and for such men the coast provides few income-generating opportunities. At best they make about Rs.20 to Rs.30 on some days when they help to mend a net or push a canoe out, he said.

Studies have indicated that ownership of boats is concentrated in fewer hands than is generally believed. Celestine said that in some of the major fishing centres in the district, like Chinnamuttom, there are moneylenders who have advanced funds for as many as a hundred mechanised boats and informally hold a claim to almost all the fish catch from these vessels. In addition, there are clear signs that the fish trade in coastal Tamil Nadu is being increasingly controlled by a handful of powerful individuals, companies or their benami agents. Even innocuous landing centres along the coast are under the thumb of commission agents appointed by these individuals who literally dictate the price of marine products that come in, by controlling the auction mechanism or by demanding the entire catch for the funds already advanced. "Traders from other centres are scared away by these agents by quoting exorbitant auction rates. The toiling fishermen stand to lose as the agents then buy at sharply reduced rates once the competition is driven away," he said.

Alexander said that the traders who transported fishermen's families from the south to places in the north such as Ramanathapuram, Tuticorin, Mandapam or Puthukkottai themselves appointed rowdies to create an impression among the poor fishermen that they were constantly under threat from local vested interests and would always need protection if they were to survive the hard months in an alien land. Indeed, some fishermen told Frontline that they could not survive in the northern districts without the protection of the traders. "With the fish resources dwindling by the day, going to Kerala, which was always a better option, is also becoming an unpalatable one, with the fishermen from Tamil Nadu having to face constant threats, insults and abuses. Moreover, the restrictions on people from other States fishing in Kerala's shores, too, are increasing," Anthony said.

Each village along the coast had a variation of the same story to narrate. At Thoothoor, the village of shark fishermen, known the world over for their felicity in deep-sea shark hunting using manual hooks and line, merchants are again the key players. There are over 800 small mechanised boats in the village, about 15 to 20 of them under the control of a single merchant who advances money to the fishermen, "binding them to the catch", and moves with them from port to port.

According to M. Selvaraj, a fishermen's leader from Kottilpady, where nearly 200 people died in the tsunami, catamaran and outboard motor (OBM) boat operators cannot generally afford the high rates of interest of the moneylenders but are "invariably trapped by the layers of traders who have joined the lucrative business to the detriment of the sons of the sea". The people of the coast are in the clutches of these traders, the smaller ones sell to the bigger ones and so on and the supply chain goes up, all of them betraying the fisherfolk," he said. "We shall never be able to sell independently because it is a business after all; we shall never be able to compete with the money power of the merchants and their middlemen."

With the taking over of the coastal fish trade by the big merchants and moneylenders, a significant trend in the fishing villages is the displacement of women, who have been forced out of their tradition-bound coastal homes by poverty and increasing indebtedness to involve themselves in the marketing of fish. According to fishermen in the villages of Melemanakkudi and Colachal, women involved in fish marketing are almost always the older ones, widows or destitutes, and they face the stigma of being in a vocation considered an inferior one by the highly rigid coastal village societies. "These women continuously face problems of working capital at affordable interest rates and lack of access even to fish-landing centres, which are dominated by the big traders," Alexander said. With the introduction of newer varieties of gear and craft, women and older men who used to find ancillary jobs on the coast in the traditional fishing networks are increasingly finding these sources of meagre revenue too drying up.

Soosai Antony, a social worker based in Rajakkmangalam Thurai who has been actively campaigning for the construction of breakwaters and mini-fishing harbours at the main landing centres, told Frontline that the exploitation had been encouraged to a large extent by the reluctance of nationalised banks to advance funds to fishermen. "Though we have been trying hard to make bank officials understand the need for more lending to fishermen, they have blocked all our efforts saying that fishermen with their financial woes would not be able to repay the huge amounts that they require as advance. I think a serious inquiry would bring out the lie in these biased beliefs," he said.

IN most of the coastal hamlets that Frontline visited, young fisherfolk said that they had stopped going to school in order to learn the trade of their forefathers and to help their families. Though there were notable exceptions in some villages, several fishermen said they had studied only up to the sixth standard. Bergman Selvaraj, a young fisherman in the thoroughly devastated Melemanakkudi village, said that he stopped going to school after the sixth standard because his peers who had further education were "roaming around in the village jobless" and his parents and friends often egged him on, instead, to learn the tricks of the sea if he were to make a living. Alternative employment was a worthless dream, according to fishermen who spoke to Frontline, and the belief that fishing is the only job for them seemed to be ingrained in the coastal psyche.

According to A.J. Vijayan, a trade union leader and researcher based in Thiruvananthapuram, the government should consider seriously whether replacing lost fishing craft and gear would be the ideal way to provide long-term succour to fishermen affected by the tsunami. The most striking problem in the coastal district was one of over-exploitation of fishery resources and an alarming increase in craft and gear meant for further exploitation, he said. Ideally, the government should aim at finding alternative employment for the fishworkers in the long term at least, he said. Many fishermen and social workers in Kanyakumari district, however, said that denying fishing gear and craft to fishermen affected by the tsunami would only push them into further poverty and hunger and new policy initiatives can be implemented only in the long term, if at all.

Celestine said that this was a matter of great concern to members of the fishermen community as very few people from among them were interested or were successful in finding alternative employment. But one fisherman in Kottilpady said that he had taken a loan of Rs.2 lakhs and sold most of his assets to see that his only daughter completed her engineering course, while his elder son went with him to the sea and the younger one continued in school. Prabha, a 27-year-old schoolteacher now employed in Jharkhand, said that her father was always very clear that she and her brother should complete their studies and should not be bound to the sea and their native village of Keezhemanakkudi, where the tsunami claimed the lives of 36 people, including her mother.

According to Celestine, such people are exceptions to the rule but the trend was evident - of a growing reluctance to take up education and alternative employment at a time when coastal communities were being drowned in a surplus of fishing craft and gear and were facing dwindling resources. Those who indeed succeeded in finding alternative employment or other income-generating ventures soon became the elite who drifted away permanently from the coastal villages and the mass of people there.

Selvaraj said that in most villages in coastal Kanyakumari, for example, men above the age of 35 were increasingly becoming unfit to venture out to sea and were turning to illicit liquor to while away time and were becoming unproductive quite early in their lives. "Our forefathers used to bless us famously to go on living up to the ripe old age of 100 but nowadays people have started believing that even a 60-year life span would be too much of a burden on their families."

HOWEVER, according to Soosai Antony, the biggest danger in the fishing villages of Tamil Nadu is the imposing influence of religion, religious leaders and accompanying vested interests that tend to keep coastal communities under a vice-like grip, never letting them stray out into the mainstream or develop a liberating class consciousness.

Alexander said that in Kanyakumari, "where the Roman Catholic Church is literally the government for the coastal parishioners", there were increasing instances of fisher persons trying to break free from the hold of the Church being excommunicated from the village or those converting to other sects being barred from having even drinking water from their native villages. "Free thinking is discouraged. Education is not encouraged. Elected representatives are not allowed to function freely or to mingle with the coastal villagers. Every issue is left to the parish council. What the priest says goes," he said.

In some villages even the auctioning of fish at the landing centres is entrusted to certain people by the parish council, which is then entitled to a 2-3 per cent share of the bounty from the sea, according to Selvaraj. He said: "Some parishes have a system of informal tax for the maintenance of the church to be paid yearly by the auctioneers, who are then allowed a free rein in the buying and selling of fish in the village. No tax is paid to the panchayat though. All this happens at the expense of the labour of the poor fishermen."

Celestine believes that efforts to form trade unions of fishworkers are almost always scuttled by the parish councils. "One such effort in some villages to form a catamaran fishermen's union resulted in clashes and intervention by the Church with incentives to discourage people from forming the union. The Church then went on to establish a coastal peace and development committee for the district, a maverick instrument under it that effectively ensured that no union emerged from among the ordinary fishermen. The system almost always makes sure that laymen leaders also do not emerge from among the fishworkers," he said.

Soosai Antony said that in most of the villages along the coast, priesthood had become a "big business", and complaints are increasing that those close to the parishes and their leaders alone benefited from the economic, social and educational opportunities thrown open by the Church. He said a judicial commission that inquired into the police firing at Mandaikkadu coastal village in 1982 had even observed that the fishermen of Kanyakumari were being used as "warriors to protect the priests".

"Becoming a priest is an easy way of going to a foreign country within two or three years, arranging opportunities for relatives and friends abroad and then establishing a non-governmental organisation (NGO) for fishermen in their local villages. There are any numbers of prosperous NGOs receiving foreign funds in the name of fishermen under the patronage of parish priests all along the west coast. All this works to the disadvantage of the lot of the ordinary fishworker and his family members who are kept on a tight leash, never allowed even to air his grievances properly. A time will come soon when there will be bloodshed on the coast," Soosai Antony said.

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